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NBA Rookie Of The Year Watch: Napier Joins Race

Jesse Blancarte continues his season-long look at the top rookies. This week, Shabazz Napier enters the top 10.

Jesse Blancarte

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Andrew Wiggins almost jumped Jabari Parker for the top spot this week after a 29-point scoring outburst against the Sacramento Kings on Saturday.  However, Parker has put in some solid performances recently as well, and his overall contributions to the 8-7 Milwaukee Bucks keeps him in the top spot for the fourth week in a row.

Nikola Mirotic and Shabazz Napier both jump into the top-10 this week as both have received an increase in playing time because of injuries to teammates.  Napier makes his first appearance in the top-10 after recently showing off an efficient offensive game and surprising accuracy from beyond-the-arc.

The rookies continue to be inconsistent collectively, but it is nice to see that some, such as Kostas Papanikolaou, are contributing to playoff teams.

Now, let’s take a look at how the rookies stack up against one another four weeks into the season.

10.  Dante Exum, Utah Jazz:

The Utah Jazz and Dante Exum had a rough week.  Exum arguably should have fallen out of the top-10 as he scored a collective four points over the last three games, and his limited playing time is preventing him from impacting games.  However, no other rookie has done enough to bump Exum completely off the list at this point.

Exum’s shooting has fallen off recently as he is just 5-of-16 from the field in his last four outings.  Still, Exum’s shooting mechanics look solid, and he is playing a different role than he is accustomed to.  If he doesn’t start getting more playing time and a bigger role, a player like Marcus Smart, who is getting close to returning from injury, could soon bump Exum out of the top-10 completely.

9.  Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls:

Last Friday, against the Portland Trail Blazers, Nikola Mirotic scored 24 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and hit 4-of-7 from beyond-the-arc.  It was Mirotic’s best performance so far this season and his first NBA double-double.

Mirotic has filled in nicely at times for Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson, who have both missed time recently because of injuries, but his lack of rebounding limits his impact for a Bulls team that currently ranks 18th on the boards.

Despite this limitation, Mirotic is adding nice spacing to the Bulls’ offense, shooting 38.2 percent from beyond-the-arc this season and 50 percent in catch-and-shoot opportunities.

8.  Shabazz Napier, Miami HEAT:

Shabazz Napier is making the most of his recently expanded role with several injuries to the Miami HEAT backcourt.  Napier has scored in double-digits six games in a row and is averaging 12.3 points per game in that span.

Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that he has shot over 50 percent in each of those games, and has not shot under 50 percent since going 1-of-3 on November 12.  Also noteworthy is that Napier is shooting 41.5 percent from three-point range on 2.7 attempts per game.

While Napier’s scoring has been a nice boost for Miami, his assists and turnovers have been less than stellar.  In 23.1 minutes per game, Napier is turning the ball over 2.3 times, while only dishing out 2.3 assists.

7.  Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic:

Elfrid Payton put together a solid week as he continues to adjust to a reduced role with Victor Oladipo back from injury.

Payton put together two solid performances in two consecutive nights.  He scored 16 points, grabbed two rebounds and dished out five assists against the Charlotte Hornets on Friday, and followed that up with nine points, three rebounds, four assists and five steals against the Miami HEAT on Saturday.

Payton is still a non-factor from three-point range, which is why he is taking 62.8 percent of his shots less than 10 feet from the basket (where he is still shooting just 36.6 percent) .  However, Payton, like Kostas Papanikolaou, finds ways to impact games despite his shaky shooting.  That, and his perimeter defense continues to be very impressive for a rookie.

6.  Kostas Papanikolaou, Houston Rockets:

Kostas Papanikolaou has recently received an increase in his minutes because of injuries to Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones.  Last Wednesday, against the Los Angeles Lakers, Papanikolaou had 19 points, six assists, six rebounds and made 4-of-7 from beyond-the-arc.

However, as we have come to expect from Papanikolaou, his shooting went cold the following two games (4-of-17 collectively), though he continued to contribute a couple of rebounds, assists and steals each game.  Papanikolaou continues to make an impact for a contending Rockets team that is currently struggling with injuries to its front court.

Papanikolaou will really start jumping up the rankings if manages to improve his three-point shooting, especially considering he gets several catch-and-shoot opportunities each game, but is shooting just 27.1 percent in those situations.

5.  K.J. McDaniels, Philadelphia 76ers:

K.J. McDaneiels had his best scoring performance of the season last Friday against the Phoenix Suns, finishing with 17 points on 5-of-12 shooting from the field in 28 minutes.  However, this was McDaniels’ only double-digit scoring performance in his last seven games.

Despite the inconsistent scoring, McDaniels gets a high mark here for playing tough perimeter defense and shooting 38.5 percent from beyond-the-arc, and shooting an even better 41.9 percent in catch-and-shoot opportunities from beyond-the-arc.  He is shaping up to be an athletic 3-and-D player with major upside.

4.  Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers:

Nerlens Noel has scored in double-digits in three of his last four outings, while pulling in 7.5 rebounds in that same span.  He is also contributing a few assists, steals and the occasional blocked shot.  He had his best game of the season against the New York Knicks on Saturday, scoring 17 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in 39 minutes of action.

Noel is playing huge minutes for a terrible 76ers team and is doing the things we expected from him.  We would, however, like to see him increase his rebounding and shot blocking especially considering how many minutes he is playing (he has only registered more than one block in three of out the 12 games he has played in thus far).

3.  Bojan Bogdanovic, Brooklyn Nets:

Bogdanovic is developing an odd trend where he puts up a few big performances and follows them up with absolute duds.  He put up 19 points against the Milwaukee Bucks last Wednesday, and proceeded to score five points collectively in the following two games.

Despite the inconsistency, Bogdanovic is still third in scoring among all rookies at 9.9 points per game, and he is playing a major role for the Brooklyn Nets.  It would be nice if he were shooting better than 33.3 percent from beyond-the-arc, but Bogdanovic partially makes up for that with his surprising ability to score around the basket (75 percent within five feet of the rim).

2.  Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves:

Wiggins exploded for 29 points against the Sacramento Kings on Saturday.  With veteran teammates falling to injury, Wiggins is taking on more offensive responsibilities.  He now leads all rookies in per game scoring (12.5), and is playing effectively on both sides of the ball.

Wiggins’ three-point shooting has been a pleasant surprise so far this season.  He is currently 8-of-16 from beyond-the-arc for the season and his shooting mechanics look very good.  He is, however, less effective off the dribble, which is something that was apparent from his college days.

Still, the combination of Wiggins’ surprisingly effective perimeter shooting and impressive defense has him in the running to soon take over Parker at number one.  Parker holds the slight edge this week, however, for being a significant contributor on what is currently a playoff team.

1.  Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks:

Jabari Parker has scored in double-digits in five of his last six games and is rebounding the ball fairly well in that same span (6.3 rebounds per game).  He had his best scoring performance of the season last Wednesday against the New York Knicks, scoring 23 points on 8-of-13 shooting from the field.  He also pulled down seven rebounds in that game, but didn’t attempt a single three-pointer.

Parker has been playing within himself all season and is a major contributor for an 8-7 Bucks team that is currently ranked fifth in the Eastern Conference.  Parker is looking increasingly comfortable against NBA competition and it wouldn’t be surprising to see his scoring and rebounding start increasing as the season moves forward.

Which rookies have impressed you? Leave a comment below.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Rich Cho Out As Charlotte Hornets GM

The Charlotte Hornets opted to not move forward with GM Rich Cho and are expected to pursue former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak.

Buddy Grizzard

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The fateful moment for Rich Cho came days after he was hired as GM of the Charlotte Hornets in June of 2011. With the NBA Draft coming up just nine days later, Cho started work on a three-team trade that would land Charlotte a second top-10 pick to pair with its own ninth pick, which was used to draft franchise cornerstone, Kemba Walker.

In that draft, Klay Thompson went 11th to the Golden State Warriors and Kawhi Leonard went 15th to the Pacers. Of the 17 players selected after Bismack Biyombo, whom went to the Hornets with the seventh pick, 12 are regular contributors on current NBA rosters. The Orlando Magic are currently being outscored by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with Biyombo on court, a rotation-worst.

Today, Hornets owner Michael Jordan announced that Cho is out as Charlotte’s GM.

“Rich worked tirelessly on behalf of our team and instituted a number of management tools that have benefited our organization,” said Jordan in a press release. “We are deeply committed to our fans and to the city of Charlotte to provide a consistent winner on the court. The search will now begin for our next head of basketball operations who will help us achieve that goal.”

While the failure to obtain Thompson, Leonard or any of the other numerous impact players in the 2011 draft will always mar Cho’s record, falling to the second pick in the 2012 NBA Draft will continue to haunt the Hornets. Despite a brutal 7-59 record in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, which set the record for lowest win percentage in an NBA season (.110), the New Orleans Pelicans won the right to the first overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft and selected Anthony Davis.

The Hornets selected Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the second pick. Although the 2012 Draft wasn’t nearly as deep as 2011’s, the Hornets still left players like Bradley Beal (third) and Andre Drummond (ninth) on the board. Either player would have been an outstanding compliment to Walker, who remains with the team despite rumors of his availability leading up the the trade deadline.

“I feel like I’m going to be in Charlotte,” said Walker at his All-Star media availability. “So that’s where I’m at, that’s where I’m playing. So I never really sat and thought about any other teams.”

Walker made his second All-Star appearance after Kristaps Porzingis suffered a season-ending ACL injury.

“I wish K.P. hadn’t gotten hurt,” said Walker. “Everybody hates to see guys go down, especially great players like him. But when I was able to get the call to replace him, it was a really good feeling.”

Another fateful moment in Cho’s tenure came during the 2015 NBA Draft. According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, the Boston Celtics offered the 15th and 16th picks, a future protected first rounder from the Brooklyn Nets and a future first from either the Grizzlies or Timberwolves in exchange for the ninth pick, which Cho used to draft Frank Kaminsky.

“If it was such a no-brainer for us, why would another team want to do it,” Cho asked rhetorically in defense of the Kaminsky selection, according to Lowe.

Years later, it’s evident that the Celtics dodged a bullet when both Charlotte and the Miami HEAT rebuffed its attempts to move up and draft Justise Winslow. The latter has not panned out while Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the players Boston subsequently selected with Brooklyn’s picks, have developed into starters.

Chris Mannix of Yahoo! Sports reported in the first week of February that Charlotte may target former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak for a high-ranking role in the organization with Cho’s contract set to expire. Kupchak, like Jordan, is a former UNC star. Kupchak would join Jordan’s UNC teammate and Charlotte assistant GM Buzz Peterson.

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The G-League is a Path Back to the NBA

The G-League has become an avenue for several player types toward the NBA, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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When the NBA first instituted their development league, its main purpose was two-fold. The first was to give experience to young players who perhaps were not seeing regular playing time on their respective NBA teams. The second was to give undrafted players a chance at getting exposure and ultimately getting to the NBA.

With the growth in size and popularity of the development league, now known as the G-League, it’s begun to serve another purpose. It’s become a place for older veterans who have already tasted the NBA life to get back to the highest level of basketball that they once knew.

One player in particular who has a wealth of NBA experience is Terrence Jones. Jones is currently playing with the Santa Cruz Warriors, the G-League affiliate of the Golden State Warriors.

Jones was originally drafted by the Houston Rockets with the 18th overall pick in the 2012 draft. He was part of a vaunted class of Kentucky Wildcats that year, which included Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller. During his four years with the Rockets, he emerged as a dependable reserve and part-time starter. He averaged 9.5 points per game on 49.5 percent shooting and 5.3 rebounds.

“It was just a lot of excitement and a lot of joy, being part of the Houston Rockets was a lot of fun,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “We had great memories and great seasons, a lot of up and downs, I just enjoyed the journey.”

Jones’ dealt with injuries his last two season in Houston, and when he was a free agent in the summer of 2016, the Rockets didn’t re-sign him. He was scooped by the New Orleans Pelicans, however, and he made an immediate impact for them. Prior to the trade deadline, he played in 51 games for the Pelicans, including 12 starts while putting up 11.5 points on 47.2 percent shooting, and 5.9 rebounds.

When the Pelicans acquired DeMarcus Cousins, however, they cut Jones. He didn’t stay unemployed for long, though, as he was signed by the Milwaukee Bucks to add depth for a playoff run. He was unable to crack the rotation, though, and the Bucks cut him as well before the playoff started. After a brief stint in China, he’s now back stateside and using the G-League to get back to the NBA.

“That’s the goal. Right now, I feel I’ve been playing pretty well and just trying to help my team get wins,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I think I can play multiple positions offensively and defensively. Whether that’s creating plays for myself or for others, I think I can help contribute on the offensive end.”

He’s been the second-leading scorer for Santa Cruz with 19.9 points per game. He’s pulling down 7.1 rebounds, and even dishing out 4.5 assists. In the G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team at All-Star Weekend, he finished with eight points on 50.0 percent shooting, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals. He’s definitely a name to watch for as NBA teams scour the market for 10-day contract possibilities.

Another player who’s had a taste of the NBA is Xavier Silas. Silas is currently with the Northern Arizona Suns, the affiliate of the Phoenix Suns. He went undrafted in 2011 and started his professional career in France. That only last a few months before he came back the United States and latched on with the Philadelphia 76ers.

He played sparingly with the 76ers and was ultimately cut before the start of the 2012-13 season. Since then, he’s played summer league with the Bucks, and been in two different training camps with the Washington Wizards.

“It was amazing, any time you get to go and play at the highest level, and I even got to play in the playoffs and play in the second round and even score, that was big,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “It was a great time for me and that’s what I’m working towards getting back.”

While his professional career has taken him all across the globe from Israel to Argentina to Greece to Germany and even Ice Cube’s BIG3 league, he sees the G-League as being the one place that will get him back to where he wants to be.

He’s done well this season for Northern Arizona. He’s their third-leading scorer at 19.3 points per game and he’s one of their top three-point threats at 39.9 percent. At the All-Star Weekend G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team, Silas had a team-high 13 points for Team USA including 3-5 shooting from three-point range.

It’s isn’t just what he brings on the court that Silas believes makes him an attractive candidate for an NBA team. At age 30, he’s one of the older guys in the G-League and one with a lot of basketball experience to be passed down to younger guys.

“I think it’s a little bit of leadership, definitely some shooting. I’m a vet now so I’m able to come in and help in that aspect as well. But everybody needs someone who can hit an open shot and I think I can bring that to a team,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s the best place for anyone who’s trying to make that next step. We’re available and we’re right here, it’s just a call away.”

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NBA Daily: Lillard Playing For Something Bigger

Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has his eyes set on a bigger prize than just being an NBA All-Star.

Steve Kyler

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Playing For Something Bigger

The NBA All-Star Game is a spectacle.

By design, the game is meant to be a showcase, not just for the players selected to compete, but for the league and all of its partners, on and off the floor. It is easy to get caught up in how players selected actually play, but the reality is while most see the game as important for a lot of reasons, Portland Trail Blazer star Damian Lillard understands it has to be put into perspective.

“I don’t think it’s fair to expect people to go out there and treat it like they are playing for the team they’re under contract for,” Lillard explained this weekend.

“It’s the one time in an 82-game season plus playoffs, preseason and training camp that we actually get a break. It’s necessary to take a mental break, along with a physical break from what we do every day. There’s nothing wrong with that, so I don’t think it’s fair to ask guys to go out there and play like it’s for the Trail Blazers. My loyalty is to my team; I got to stay healthy for my team. I got to do what’s best for my team. Obviously, go out there [during All-Star] and not mess around too much and that’s how people get hurt and stuff like that. You got to go out there and play and have respect for the game, but I don’t think it’s necessary to go out there and go crazy like it’s a playoff game.”

Lillard notched 21 minutes in Sunday’s big game, going 9-for-14 from the field for 21 points for Team Stephen, a roster that included three Golden State Warriors players. Lillard believes that eventually, he’ll get the chance to share the weekend, his third, with teammate C. J. McCollum.

“Each year you see teams are getting two to three, Golden State got four this year,” Lillard said. “But you look at it and say ‘why is that happening’ and it has a lot to do with team success. Me and C.J. just have to take that challenge of making our team win more games. I think when we do that, we’ll be rewarded with both of us making it. If we really want to make that happen, then we’ll do whatever it takes to win more games.

“I feel like this season we’ve moved closer in that direction. In the past, we haven’t even been in the position to get one, because I did not make it the past two years. I think if we keep on improving we’ll eventually get to the point that we’re winning games and people will say ‘how are they doing this’ and then hopefully our names come up. Hopefully, one day, it’ll happen.”

Another issue that got addressed during the All-Star Weekend was the growing tensions between the NBA players and the NBA referees. Representatives from both sides met to address the gap developing on the court, something Lillard felt was necessary.

“We’re all human,” Lillard said. “As competitors, we want to win. If you feel like you got fouled, you want them to call the foul every time. I think sometimes as players, we forget how hard their job can be. At the pace we play, it’s hard to get every call, and then you got guys tricking the referees sometimes, we’re clever too. It’s a tough job for them. I think when we get caught up in our competitive nature, and we forget that they’re not just these robots with stripes, they are people too. You have got to think, as a man if someone comes screaming at you every three plays, you are going to react in your own way. Maybe you’re not going to make the next call; maybe I am going to stand my ground. It’s just something that I think will get better over time. I think both have to do a better job of understanding.”

With 24 games left to play in Lillard’s sixth NBA season, the desire to be more than a playoff team or an All-Star is coming more into focus for Lillard, something he reportedly expressed to Blazers management several weeks ago.

“There are guys that have this record and guys that have done these things, and I want to at least get myself the chance to compete for a championship,” Lillard said. “If I get there and we don’t win it, it happens. A lot of people had to go see about Michael Jordan, a lot of people had to go see about Shaq and Kobe. You know, those great teams, but I have a strong desire to at least give myself a chance to be there. Take a shot at it.”

With All-Star out of the way, the focus in the NBA will switch to the race to the playoffs. As things stand today Lillard and his Blazers hold the seventh seed in the West and are tied with Denver, and just a half of a game back from the five seed Oklahoma City Thunder.

If the Blazers are going to make noise this post season its going to be on the shoulder of Lillard, and based on what he said, it seems he’s up to the challenge.

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